Literary curator Uchenna Emelife on the importance of creative freedom in writing

In 2020 Uchenna Emelife enlisted Rodiyah Omotoyosi Mikail, his art-lover friend and fellow student from Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, to cofound  Book O’clock, a literary club based in Sokoto, a northern state in Nigeria. In October of the same year, the Book O’clock team, led by Uchenna and his friend, hosted the first Sembene Across Africa film fest in Sokoto, an Africa-wide film festival in celebration of Ousmane Sembene’s legacy in the film and writing industry. The team also debuted Literature & Film, an annual book reading and film screening event (held every December) that seeks to appreciate books and film and, after that, discuss their areas of convergence and divergence.

From the onset of Book O’clock, which kicked off during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Emelife’s vision to run the organisation was to provide an educative and entertaining platform for like-minded students with an unquenchable thirst for literature and culture. This was why in July 2021, in partnership with platforms that share a similar interest, Book O’clock curated the first book and arts festival in Sokoto, SOBAFest. In November of the same year, partnering with Praxis Magazine, Book O’clock hosted the first Praxis Hangout in Sokoto –– a mental health-themed event that provided a safe space for creatives to express themselves and learn from one another. The organisation also went around schools within the Sokoto metropolis, educating the pupils on the importance of cultivating a good reading habit from an early age. During the trips, they donated books to pupils as well.

Emelife was brought up in Sokoto State, Nigeria, and he is currently a final-year student at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University of Sokoto, where he is studying Literature in English. He grew up in a home with a family that loves reading and is known for its academic adroitness. At the age of 14 years, he had already developed a burning passion for reading and writing. However, the books he loved to read then were those written by Western authors due to the misconception he had about most African authors being political and social critics who talked mainly about colonialism, racism, underdevelopment of Africa and other defects of Africa. That misconception was, however, corrected when in 2013, his elder sister encouraged him to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. “When I finished reading Purple Hibiscus, there was a complete shift in everything I thought I knew”, he says.

Uchenna Emelife currently curates conversations for Isele Magazine, is a fiction interviewer at Africa in Dialogue, Manager at Maple Jali Bookstore, Publicist to Nigerian poet and pianist Echezonachukwu Nduka, and all-around literature aficionado. In 2022 he was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize and was selected by Sharjah Book Authority to attend the first-ever International Booksellers Conference in Sharjah, UAE.

In this conversation, Uchenna discusses his creative journey, appreciation of African literature, cofounding Book O’clock, and launching Sokoto State’s first-ever book and arts festival.

As an African and literary enthusiast, how would you define African literature?

This is such an interesting question because I struggle to define what African literature is. Many scholars have argued over what could pass as African literature. Thus I find myself torn between their postulations. Do you call a work originally written in a non-African language like English African? What if the reality portrayed is solely based on imagination but with African characters and written by an African, does it stop being African literature? Is there a language called African? Can all Africans relate to every African literature? So you see, the vines continue to thicken. But if I had to attempt to define African literature, I would say there are no limitations. Every piece of literature written by an African or a writer of African descent whose extent of ‘Africanness’ in plotting, characters and other elements are freely determined by the writer. This is because I believe an artist should never be caged. The African writer should tell the story they want to tell and not be bothered about meeting some standard. I should stop rambling now, Ha Ha.

Most creatives I have spoken with, especially writers, agreed that they were inspired after reading a particular book at an early age. Was there a book that influenced your own decision to delve into writing?

I have said elsewhere about how Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sparked an interest in literature in me like never before. I still remember that evening I finished the book. I was 14 at the time and was convinced by my elder sister Jennifer to read it. My school had already recommended it, but I was apathetic toward African books. I preferred Western books and had a naive opinion about books written by Africans. But when I finished Purple Hibiscus, there was a complete shift in everything I thought I knew about African literature and literature. Here was a book to which I could relate. A book with characters that looked like me shared my fears and aspirations and was written brilliantly in all their flaws and strengths. I was blown away. That was how my sojourn into this vast and beautiful literary world began. A few years later, I read Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard. I was sold over by the traditional life portrayed in the book, so I decided to write my first short story, The Sharpening Stone Festival. Of course, it was horrible, but it was a good start. The story was about an imaginary festival called The Sharpening Stone Festival. There was a friend of mine, whom we usually tease by calling his head Sharpening Stone, so making up the story was me being mischievous and, at the same time, trying out a skill I thought I had. Apologies, Victor, but I’m glad I told that story.

We are in a generation where the reading culture is taken with levity. But you have always loved reading books since you were little, and what’s more, you cofounded Book O’Clock. How did your interest in books start?

How did my interest in books start? Hmm. I come from a family hugely invested in academics. If you go to Sokoto now and ask people about the Emelifes, they would probably first talk about our academic enthusiasm before mentioning our first names. My sister, Jennifer, was an art student, and she brought home storybooks and novels. Because I was naturally such a curious kid, I began to read these books on my sister’s shelf, and the more I read, the more I was drawn to them.

In my primary school, in addition to being the Assistant Headboy, I was in charge of the school’s shelf, which further advanced my love for reading and stories. So two things: curiosity and gossip, made me fall in love with books. Yes, gossip. Anyone who loves stories loves to gossip. Someone had to say it. LOL.

Book O’clock happened much later, particularly in April 2020 and was borne from the need to provide a platform where people who loved books like me in Sokoto could express their love freely.

Your interest seems to be in finding like-minded persons with whom you can pursue art. It’s evident when you organised SOBAFest with your team in 2021. What was it like accomplishing something so culturally significant?

It was surreal. That’s the best word to describe how myself and the SOBAF team felt after pulling that off. The journey was a daunting one. There were disappointments, failed promises, and much more, but it all made sense in the end. On the evening of the event’s final day, we had a gathering like an afterparty after we had wrapped up everything. People thought I was intoxicated because I went around screaming, “Who dey breathe?!” The thing choke o. I’m glad we had a good team and amazing patrons and matrons behind us that kept cheering us on. That was just the beginning anyways. More underway. More.

In May 2022, you were among the booksellers from 56 countries that Sharjah Book Authority in Sharjah, UAE invited to its International Booksellers Conference. What was the experience like? Has it changed you in any way?

It’s one opportunity I will forever be grateful for. It exposed me to all I needed to know about this bookselling path and made the routes more glaring. I’m grateful for the networks I have built as a result and the opportunity to acquaint myself with fellow booksellers worldwide. When collaboration is the new goldmine, the conference couldn’t have come at a better time. There is so much we can learn from one another, and so much we can achieve if we pool our ideas and resources. The coming days hold so much promise, and I credit that to the conference. I thank the Sharjah Book Authority for the initiative and, importantly, Madame Lola Shoneyin for the recommendation. I do not take it for granted.

To the second part of your question about if the conference has changed me in any way, I think what it did was not change me but gave me more clarity. I know better than I did and have been taught practical ways to overcome the challenges that come with this trade. It has also made me more deliberate, and there is something about deliberateness and success.

Speaking of overcoming challenges, are there occasions when you feel less confident about getting something done? How do you overcome them?

Yes, there are. And I think every creative person feels this way once in a while. There were many times when I just couldn’t find the motivation to work or do anything productive. Sometimes they endure for too long and begin to mess me up. And because I’m restless, being unproductive deals greater blows to my head. I’m glad that I have recently discovered a hack to escape this. When those bad days come, I take a break, find a romance novel and read, or binge-watch any of my favourite American sitcoms. And they work, I tell you. After reading or watching, I find myself easing back to my confident and productive self. Crazy right?

I wish those days never existed. I wish we could always trust ourselves enough to be capable of whatever we are working on and not feel doubt. But we can only wish, yeah?

Yeah! Okay, Emelife, I want to know if there’s something you want to try aside from developing your craft.

Hmm. There are many things I want to try. You need to be in my head to see why it’s a lot. Because I have a hyper imagination, I have lived many lives in my head that I thought would be cool for me. But jokes apart, Medicine. I want to study Medicine and be a Doctor. It’s something that I have always wanted to do, but along the line, literature happened and took hold of me. Recently, I have become increasingly interested in the medical field, and it’s not only because I have been told that I would look really good in a lab coat and a stethoscope hung around my neck. So yeah, Medicine is it.

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